[ExI] democracy sucks

Anders Sandberg anders at aleph.se
Fri Feb 25 01:55:05 UTC 2011

Jeff Davis wrote:
> Can we identify the pros and cons re governance in general, and
> democracy in particular, and come up with something better, or some
> suggestions, or at least get pointed in the right direction?
Hmm, from reading your post I think your problem is with the complex 
representative democracy systems we have today. Not so much with 
democracy, just that it is not direct.

The problem with direct democracy is that it does not scale. And the 
problem with tribal democracy is that *tribes* don't scale. If you are 
OK living in a small society you would probably get both egalitarianism 
and a direct political say for free, assuming it can be kept small 
enough to at most reach the anthropological "big man" stage but avoid 
the big man becoming a chief. This means groups of 50-100 people. This 
might fit the evolved human psyche fine, but it is economically 
hopeless:  there is not room for economic specialisation, it misses 
economies of scale, and it is not possible to maintain rare but 
important skills (think chip designers). One can try to patch it by 
having the tribes trade and send kids to each other for higher 
education, but as soon as the ties become strong enough to be useful you 
end up with a larger society and the original problems.

The isolated little space/sea habitat might be egalitarian and free, but 
the larger network of minds in the mainstream civilization will be 
roaring past it in terms of productivity and progress despite their 
limited freedom and bureaucratic overheads.

Basically, I think there is no way you can avoid a complex, remote 
government if you want to have a complex big society. And most of the 
time we do not want to have a say, since most questions are irrelevant 
or incomprehensible to us. Just as there are benefits in economic 
specialisation there are benefits in political specialisation. What we 
should be aiming for is *open societies*: societies where it is possible 
to observe, criticise and change the activities and structure of the 
government. Democracy (plus free press) is useful because it tends to 
maintain open societies, not so much because democracy itself is good. 
Having competition elements in the political system is a good idea for 
the same reason it is a good idea in markets: it rewards efficient and 
successful policies, while it punishes bad policies.

So my way of rephrasing the question is: what governance structures 
enable open societies to function well and maintain their governance? It 
seems to me that they should have a high degree of 
transparency/traceability so problems can be found and the relevant 
parts held accountable, modularity so that corrections of one part does 
not mess up other parts, a suitable level of responsivity so that they 
adapt but are not too affected by noise (current political fashions, the 
latest blogquake), and provide a reward mechanism for constructive 
criticism/modification that is not easily short-circuited.

Anders Sandberg,
Future of Humanity Institute 
James Martin 21st Century School 
Philosophy Faculty 
Oxford University 

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